Panda's World More than Black and White

Lun Lun, a female giant panda, on a 10-year loan to Zoo Atlanta. Research at Georgia Tech and Zoo Atlanta shows that giant pandas can distinguish between color and various shades of gray. (Image credit: Georgia Tech)

Though their fur is black and white, those are not the only colors that giant pandas see.

A new study finds two zoo pandas, Lun Lun [image] and Yang Yang, were able to distinguish colors from shades of gray.

Though color vision is well studied in domesticated animals, like cats and dogs, and in primates, "color vision isn't too well studied in carnivores," said study leader Angela Kelling, a graduate researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology and Zoo Atlanta.

Kelling and her co-researchers decided to study color vision in pandas because their cognitive and sensory abilities aren't yet well understood, and "we have such a rare opportunity having them at Zoo Atlanta," she said.

Most mammals are dichromatic, or can distinguish only color and gray, which Kelling says is most likely the case with giant pandas.

"They don't see [colors] the same way we do, but they are able to distinguish them as a separate color," Kelling said.

Dichromatism is usually attributed to the presence of only two cones cells in the retina of the eye. These cells are sensitive to higher-intensity light, with different types allowing for the detection of certain colors.

Humans and many other primates have three cones, and so are trichromatic. Marine mammals are usually monochromatic because their eyes operate in the low-intensity light that penetrates below the water's surface. Some species, including bees and goldfish, are thought to be tetrachromatic and able to see in the UV spectrum, according to Kelling.

To test the pandas color-sensing abilities, Kelling presented the pandas with three PVC pipes each hanging under a piece of paper. Two of the pipes were hung under paper that was colored one of 18 shades of gray, with the third hung under paper colored one of five shades of three different colors—red, blue and green.

If the pandas pushed the pipe under the colored paper, they received a treat (pushing the other pipes did nothing). The colors and shades of gray were mixed up through the trial.

Color vision was confirmed if the pandas pressed the colored pipe for 80 percent of the trials in three consecutive sessions. Lun Lun, the female, passed for all three colors, while Yang Yang, the male, passed for two because a tooth problem prevented him from participating in the third trial.

"While this study shows that giant pandas have some color vision, it wasn't conclusive as to what level of color vision they have," Kelling said. "From this study, we can't tell if the pandas can tell the difference between colors themselves, like red from blue or blue from green. But we can see that they can determine if something is gray or colored."

The study was detailed recently in the journal Learning and Behavior. Color vision could be useful to pandas in the wild by helping them distinguish healthy bamboo patches from brown and dying ones.

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.